MD/PhD Year 4: Uff Da

Uff Da is a phrase commonly said in Minnesota to signify exhaustion, weariness, resignation, and overwhelm. As I look back at all that I have done in my first 4 years as a MD/PhD student, this is the word that comes to mind. Yet, as I live day-to-day, it doesn’t seem that bad. In fact, I LOVE what I do, and I am so excited for what’s to come!

You may have noticed that my blog posts have severely dropped off as I’ve progressed through this program. Why? It’s hard to write about things that are so drawn out! I started this blog to help undergraduates survive the med school application process and learn about MD/PhD programs. I’ve written a decent amount about my med school application process, but this was so long ago I dare not write much about it anymore! As for sharing about MD/PhD programs, I feel that I have settled into a routine over the past 4 years such that I don’t really have that many new and exciting things to talk about.

I could tell you all about the failed experiments or few successful ones (I ran a gel today! Just like yesterday!) But I don’t because I’d rather wait to tell you the full story of my research that gets published (whenever it does). Furthermore, classes and teaching are such a normal part of my life that they don’t really stand out as something to write about (beyond how to do well in anatomy). I have done a few other pretty cool things that I’ve wanted to tell people about (like some mentioned below), but I’ve had enough other things to rush off and do immediately after that I haven’t committed time to do them justice.

I really want to share what I’m doing and connect with others to learn about the cool things they’re doing as well. I’m glad that new people continue to find my blog and value its resources. It really warms my heart to hear that my writing has been of help! I promise I will continue to write when I can. 🙂

So, to make up for a year of silence, here’s some of the cool things I’ve been up to during the past year:

I planned a conference!

I didn’t realize how much time this took up until the conference was over and I was back to doing deep cleans and organizing in lab. I wondered to myself, “Why haven’t I been doing this? How did I let it get this bad?” And I realized that I’d normally be sending emails during that time!

Of course, I didn’t do it alone. In April 2016, my good friend and fellow MD/PhD student at UIUC, Mariam Camacho, and myself were elected the Events Chairs for the American Physician Scientists Association (APSA). APSA is a national trainee-run organization for physician-scientist trainees that holds an annual meeting with the Association of American Physicians and American Society for Clinical Investigation each spring. It was our job to oversee the planning from the APSA side of things, including inviting speakers, coordinating the planning of panels, and taking care of all of the nitty gritty details that are required for planning a conference. I am happy to say it was a success!

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Source: American Physician Scientists Association

There were many other great people that helped us with this endeavor including Alex Adami, Jillian Liu, Allyson Palmer, Lillian Zhang, Jason Siu, Michelle Caunca, Teddy Mamo, Jeremie Lever, and the staff at McKenna Management. We couldn’t have done it alone!

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2016-2017 American Physician Scientists Association Events Committee. Missing: Michelle Caunca

APSA is a wonderful organization for physician-scientist trainees! If you’re a trainee (whether in medical school or undergraduate) and you’re interested in becoming a physician-scientist, check them out!

I finished my first year of medical school!

And it only took 4 years!!! As my peers who started medical school with me were graduating and preparing for residency, I was taking my last exams of my first year of medical school. We have a unique MD/PhD program at UIUC where we gradually integrate the first year of medical school curriculum into our PhD training as to not greatly hinder our research time. To help you better understand how this works, I’ve listed my schedule for M1 courses:

Year Fall Spring
2013-2014
  • Immunology
  • Brain, Behavior, and Human Development
2014-2015
  • Physiology I
  • Physiology II
2015-2016
  • Anatomy
  • Cell and Tissue Biology I
  • Embryology
  • Anatomy
  • Cell and Tissue Biology II
2016-2017
  • Biochemistry
  • Foundations of Clinical Medicine I
  • Medical Genetics
  • Microbiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Foundations of Clinical Medicine I
  • Medical Statistics
  • Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology

I presented my research and traveled across the country

Literally. In November, I gave a talk at the AASLD Liver Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.

AASLD Talk

At the End of March, I flew to the other side of the country and presented a poster at the American College of Physicians (ACP) Internal Medicine Meeting in San Diego.

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Instagram: @MDPhDToBe

In May, I went to Washington, DC to advocate with the ACP as I have done in 2014 and 2016.

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Instagram: @MDPhDToBe

I was elected to the ACP Council of Student Members (CSM) this year, so I just was in Philadelphia for a CSM meeting. As the Vice President for APSA this year, I spent a weekend in Atlanta this summer for our annual leadership retreat. I also visited my college roommate in Montana over spring break. I’m ready to take a break from flying. 😫 However, I am so thankful for these opportunities to travel the country, connect with others, share my research, and help organizations more effectively help other trainees and patients!

 

I earned a teaching certificate

My graduate department requires that all PhD students teach. I’ve gone beyond the teaching requirements to teach 4 semesters. Since i had spent that much time in the classroom, I thought I might as well attend a few more workshops and reflect on my teaching skills so that I could earn a certificate. I’m a little biased, but I really do believe taking this extra time to focus on my didactic skills has made me a much better teacher.

I have been a teaching assistant for an anatomy & physiology lab for 3 years. The fall semester, which I teach, covers histology, bones, muscles, and the nervous system. The first time I taught this class, I was overwhelmed with how much there was to know! Shout out to all of my students who have worked their butts off to take on this class while carrying a heavy undergraduate workload. The second time, I was taking my medical school anatomy class at the same time and was starting to pick up on a lot more things and was a much better teacher. The third time, having completed M1 anatomy and in the process of my teaching certificate, was even better. This was a particularly fun semester to teach because my classroom had the same cadaver that I had dissected the previous year!

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Between having a much more in depth understanding of anatomy and attending teaching workshops, I feel that I have really grown as a teacher. As a result, I was given an excellent teaching rating by my students for the first time for this class (I also earned one when TAing a microbiology lab). Teaching does take quite a bit of time away from my research, so I’m done for it for now.

 

I’ve missed out on a lot

I think it’s important to point out that while I have been able to do a lot of great things that I am incredibly excited about, I have also missed out on a lot. For example, I’ve only made it back home to see family a few times in the past year. My niece was born in July 2016 and I’ve seen her at 2 weeks, 6 months, and 11 months. I’ve been able to facetime a few times, but it’s just not the same.

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I’ve missed weddings. And birthdays. And home Gopher football games (an important part of my undergrad).  So I’d like to thank all of my family and friends for dealing with me and being ever so patient with me when you don’t hear from me for extended periods. I’ve had to let a lot of friendships fade out over the past few years, but I promise you all still mean so much to me! I’d especially like to thank my partner for dealing with my craziness and considering working together at a coffee shop a “date.”

Now that I’ve covered quite a bit, I’m going to get back to everything else. I have a paper to write, events to plan, websites to design, policies proposals to draft, personal statements to write, experiments to plan, and so much more! As always, feel free to contact me, I’ll try to respond as soon as I can. But no guarantees when that’ll be… Here goes year 5!!!

I’m now a Master

Masters

So, in my little absence from blogging, I went out and got my masters degree. Cool, right? While I was officially notified that I would be awarded my degree in May and technically “graduated” in August, I didn’t get this fancy piece of paper until mid-September when I finally let everyone know. Alas, my absence from blogging made posting this a little bit less of a priority, but I’m hoping that by writing this now, I will be able to get myself back into that whole writing-for-fun (fun? yes fun) thing.

Anyways, I thought I’d explain a bit about how I earned this degree:

First of all, you may be wondering why get a masters if I’m getting a Ph.D. Yes, some people get masters before they apply to a Ph.D. program, but I’m already signed up for the long run. Fortunately, my department thinks it’s nice to award their students masters degrees after completion of the course requirements, recommendation by the advisor to continue as a Ph.D. candidate, and successful completion of written and oral Ph.D. candidacy qualification exams. The course requirements are usually completed by the time of the qualification exam in the spring of the second year.

Even though I switched labs after 8 months, which put me behind in my research, I still was able to complete this exam on time. The research aspect is important because our qual exam involves writing a research proposal based on our current work (which requires generating a sufficient amount of data) and orally defending said proposal. Fortunately, just before writing my proposal, I helped my prof write a larger NIH research proposal on my project, which I then was able to take parts of (aka the parts that I primarily wrote) and incorporate them into my proposal. It was a great experience to become more familiar with proposal writing, which helped me write mine (grad students, if you ever get a chance to do this, definitely do it!) I gave myself a month to devote myself to writing my proposal and finishing up some experiments to use as preliminary data and was pretty satisfied with the result.

Next came the oral exam. Mine was scheduled nearly a month after the deadline for the written portion. Since I felt guilty doing science and not studying, I spent most of that month sitting at home and reading every paper somewhat related to my research that I could get my hands on (and playing with my new cat, Smeagol). Let’s just say my useless science knowledge expanded exponentially during that time (sure I can draw a steroid-based bile acid in 3D and do the electron pushing for the synthesis of bile acids from cholesterol now, but that doesn’t have any relevance to my research other than that I study the biological functions of fully synthesized bile acids…) Nonetheless, my relentless studying paid off. My oral exam consisting of me and three professors in a small room with a chalkboard (no prepared presentations allowed!) went rather swimmingly. Well, other than their concern that my proposal was a bit (a lot) ambitious even though I essentially cut my prof’s proposal in 1/3…

Even though my proposal was well written and my oral exam went well, my (and my advisor’s) ambition earned me a rewrite on my proposal to make it more simple and less time consuming (so that I’d get to graduate at some point). Unfortunately, being able to write a non-ambitious proposal is a skill that must be acquired through writing lots of proposals. Since I was planning on adapting this fake qualifying exam proposal into my own actual fellowship proposal that summer, I took this rewrite as an opportunity to get even more feedback on my proposal and make it the best it can be. I turned in my rewritten proposal in May and soon found out that it had been approved. Thus, the awarding of my degree and my current status as a Ph.D. candidate. 🙂

Up next: Ph.D.

#AcademicsWithCats

If you follow me on instagram and/or twitter, you may know that just over a month ago, I adopted a sweet little 1 year old cat from the Humane Society. Since then, I’ve been 1) too busy playing with her and 2) too busy preparing for my qualifying exam (mostly #2, but I wish it were more #1) to post about her. Now that my qual is done, I’d like to finally introduce you all to my precious girl, Smeagol!

I know the name probably reminds you of this little fellow from LOTR:

Source: Dugbee | Flickr
Source: Dugbee | Flickr

But no worries, she is nowhere as creepy as Gollum (and luckily not possessed by a magic ring). But she is gray/brown, which fits with the name, and I’ve always wanted to name my pets after characters from middle earth.

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So why am I posting about my cat on a blog about med school and grad school? Well, a little while ago there was a hashtag going around twitter, #academicswithcats. Now that I’m one of them, I wanted to share some of my pictures of how this little cat has changed the way I work.

Working on the computer is a lot harder.

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I can’t edit my writing.

(That’s my qualifying paper).

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I can’t access the papers I’d like to read.

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But it’s totally worth it!

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If you’re looking to get a pet, please consider adoption!

Why I Switched Thesis Labs in Graduate School

A year ago, I began graduate school. I can recall sitting, bright eyed and bushy tailed, in an auditorium with my fellow first years as our director of graduate studies greeted us and told us about the challenge we were about to undertake. He offered words of wisdom like “Look at those around you and get to know them for one day they can become your colleagues and collaborators no matter where life takes you – academia, industry, and beyond,” and “Your choice in thesis lab is essential for your success.”

This was the first time we were told how to pick a thesis lab, but it was certainly not the last, not even from him. “Not all advisors are equal,” he warned us, “And one who might be a good advisor for one student may not be a good advisor for another student.” There are many things to consider when picking an advisor – the size of the lab, funding, the style of mentorship, the advisor’s personality, the lab’s productivity – but there was one thing he emphasized. “DO NOT pick a lab for the science. Graduate school is a time to learn to be a researcher. You have the rest of your life to do the science you want to do.”

But I didn’t listen.

During undergrad, I had decided that I wanted to do research related to cancer – more specifically, research that had a rather direct contribution to therapeutic development. I narrowed down my lab options to those with a therapeutic focus and ultimately joined a lab that studied immunotherapy, an area that I was incredibly excited about.

Unfortunately, the small lab didn’t have its “bread and butter” research, an established focus of its research efforts. But I didn’t care. During my rotation in the lab, I had designed a project to start from scratch and formed a collaborative mentorship team to help me with it. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the risk that came from starting a brand new project that neither of my mentors was well versed in. I did know there were some risks from joining the lab, though, with a history of students taking seven or eight years to complete a PhD, but I had chosen the program for the freedom to get a more extensive research experience than at MSTPs where students normally take only three or four years for a PhD and was at the time willing to take on a longer project.

Over the next eight months, I became more aware of the longevity of the training ahead of me while at the same time my project was taking its sweet time to start. Though frustrated at times with lack of progress and mentoring, I was determined to make it work. Convinced by others including my other mentor that I would be a good fellowship candidate, I devoted the summer after my first year to preparing a research proposal and associated materials for an extensive fellowship application from the NIH only to have my other mentor tell me days before submitting that not only was the proposal not ready, the project would not be suitable for a timely PhD. This was followed by the question, “Are you happy?”

My first answer was yes, of course. I thought immunotherapy was an amazing field, and I was ecstatic to be learning about it, hoping to devote my career to it. My lab mates were great. I had a good relationship with my advisor. My project, if it worked, I felt would likely be a valuable finding, and I wanted to see it out. But… my project wasn’t really going anywhere at the moment, my advisor didn’t have the expertise needed to help me with it, and while my other mentor did work with many of the techniques, some of what I proposed was even outside his expertise. Starting this project from scratch likely meant that my PhD was going to take much longer than the five years I hoped, and unfortunately, any other project I would do in the lab would also be started from scratch. With an anticipated nine years of education following graduate school (three to finish medical school, three for residency, and three for fellowship), I no longer wished to risk such a long PhD; therefore, an alternative option was to switch labs.

I had never realized how common it was to switch labs in graduate school. It is said that 20 to 30 percent of students end up switching, and as I thought of the people I knew who switched, I began to really believe those numbers. One friend switched three months after joining his lab because the professor turned out to be crazy (to put it nicely). Another switched eight months after joining because he didn’t fit well with the lab. A third switched after nearly two years when her qualifying exam went poorly and she realized her professor was just not providing the mentorship support that she needed. I also heard cases when graduate students had actually been kicked out of their labs as well and had to find another lab. Sometimes these switches occurred even later into their third, fourth, or fifth years. I was glad to be considering switching just one year into the program.

When it comes to switching labs, a challenge is to find a new lab (which is a must before telling your current advisor that you want to switch). Luckily, I have maintained contact with professors other than my own advisor throughout my first year. Therefore, when it came to looking for a new lab, I already had others where I knew the professor and would be comfortable joining their lab. The one I knew best was my other mentor for my project, but he did not work with cancer. On the other hand, his wife who I also knew well studies the liver with part of her lab focused on liver cancer. Since their labs work together and I did my last rotation in his lab, I knew I would fit in her lab. Also, unlike my first lab, she has more projects available than people to do them, and she was eager for more students. As she told me about all of the projects available, I was convinced that I would be more productive in her lab.

The biggest challenge was then to talk about my situation with my advisor. I have the utmost respect for him and was nervous to tell him that I no longer wished to be in his lab. When we spoke after being told that I should not submit my application, he told me that he had just written in my recommendation that I dealt with roadblocks well. As I had contemplated switching labs, I wondered if this would still hold true should I switch or would I be taking the easy way out? Would I be letting him down? My friends reminded me that when it comes to your future, you should never be ashamed to be selfish and do what you feel is best for you. I knew this switch was what I needed.

My advisor had been on vacation, giving me time to contemplate this whole situation. When he returned, I went to his office to talk. First we talked about what other projects I could do in the lab because I really did want to give the lab a chance. As we exhausted possible projects, though, none stood out to me as being able to provide the productive research experience I would receive in the other lab. I then suggested that an alternative option was for me to switch labs. To my relief, he was incredibly receptive, wanting whatever is best for me. I couldn’t have imagined it going any better. I’m sad to leave, but I’m glad to be leaving on such amicable terms.

Later that day, I saw the director of my graduate program speaking to a room of new students. I smiled for I, too, was bright eyed and bushy tailed just like them – just like I had been the year before – eager to get started in my new thesis lab. Perhaps someday I will again focus my efforts on immunotherapy, but for now I will still get to study cancer in lab where I have a better chance of completing a productive and timely PhD.

It’s been a while

Did you miss me?

While you may follow me on twitter and see my day to day ramblings, it’s been quite some time since I’ve done a real update here on my beloved blog.

This post is to tell you why.

I last posted about my experience with school at the end of fall semester. Then a few things happened. And suddenly, spring semester is almost gone! What’s really helped time fly is that I’ve lived up to motto quite well this semester: Do All The Things Here’s the jist of what my semester has been like:

Medical School Classes

Our program has us take our M1 courses spread out during our PhD, so I got a start on mine by taking immunology and brain, behavior, and human development. I had to race back from Minnesota soon after new years to beat the oncoming winter storm and be back on time to start medical school courses on January 6 – two weeks before the rest of the university’s courses started. While the immunology class ended at the beginning of March, the brain, behavior, and human development course goes until mid May.

Graduate School Classes

My program has additional graduate school course requirements, so I took the undergraduate/graduate immunology course as well as a tumor targeting journal club this semester. I *may* get to TA the immunology course at some point so that was another reason to take the second immuno. The journal club is a more chill class requiring a single presentation on a paper each semester as we all take turns presenting. It’s also a multidisciplinary group of graduate and undergraduate students which means we learn about targeting tumor therapy from a variety of perspectives!

Seminars/Symposiums/Meetings

I think I have a problem because I love seminars. Like I go to all of them. Not just for my own department (physiology) but many others like the microbiology, cell and developmental biology, and biochemistry departments (and sometimes neuroscience/others). My department began the semester with job candidate talks twice a week and has at least relaxed to just one seminar per week now. I’ve also spent a day at the College of Medicine’s Annual Research Symposium and will be enjoying the weekend at the American Physician Scientist’s Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL.

Being a Teaching Assistant

I got to stand on the other side of the classroom for the first time as I had my own section of introduction to microbiology lab for non-majors. While the concepts weren’t necessarily hard, figuring out how to teach them to people who weren’t science majors and getting them interested in it was the real challenge. Overall, it’s been a wonderful experience – my students are great and helping others learn feels great. There’s just a few more classes before the end of the semester, and I just *might* miss it this summer (though I’ll enjoy more time for other things!)

Clinical Practice Preceptorship

I may not be doing my clinical years for quite some time, but I did get to spend a little time in the clinic this year. We have a program that matches up M1s with physicians to shadow and really learn about patient care. I opted to do this so soon since I had never actually shadowed a physician before, it helped balance out my other basic science endeavors, and I hoped to make a lasting connection with a physician mentor. As an aspiring academic medical oncologist, I lucked out and was placed with a medical oncologist who also happened to be director of cancer research at the local hospital. While I only shadowed a few times, it was a great experience to have early on.

Writing

While I wasn’t writing for here as much, I was still writing. Most of my attention has been on writing articles for The Almost Doctor’s Channel, though I’ve also started writing for Doc Check and contributed to Lean On‘s blog.

Oh, and research

Wait, is that why I’m in grad school? I really started work on my project this semester after doing A LOT of reading and planning this fall to start to develop my own project. After working with primary mouse cells for a while, I got the dendritic cell line that the lab had been trying to get for quite some time, which was infinitely better (until recently when they just decided to stop growing). I managed to get enough data to make a poster for the College of Medicine’s Annual Research Symposium and I’m looking forward to being able to devote much more time to it once the semester is over.

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And that’s spring semester in a nutshell! I’m hoping to write more about some of these experiences more in depth when I get the time. As always, if you have any questions or want me to address anything specific on here, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at mdphdtobe@gmail.com and I will do my best to respond in a timely manner.

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Featured photo source: “Time” by JD | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Spring “Break”

Spring Break 2014 has just come and passed. While this is a time for most undergrads to get away from campus, it’s a time for grad students like me to stick around and get work done. This is what it looks like.

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DOUBLE FISTING

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No, not drinks.

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LEARNING ABOUT [FOREIGN] CULTURES

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Cultures of cells…

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PARTYING* IN THE HOOD**

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*Working

**The tissue culture hood

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MIXING IT UP

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Work that vortex

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ENJOYING THE FLOW

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Flow cytometry, that is.

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ENHANCING MY HIGHLIGHTS

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Not in my hair, on my notes.

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CONSUMING DRUG OF CHOICE

coffee

MOAR COFFEE

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USING ALCOHOL

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Don’t drink this stuff.

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TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT’S GOING ON

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So much data. What does it mean???

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Wow! What a week!!! 😉

2014-03-23 13.23.22Eternally waiting for the centrifuge…